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Mt. Kiku – The Messenger

“And this is where Kiku cut off her hair before continuing on to Osaka Castle to relay an important message to Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, explains Nishina-san, a local expert on the 17th century legend regarding the origin of the peculiar pine tree gracing the summit of Mt. Kiku in southern Osaka Prefecture. “Is this the original tree?”, I inquire, knowing full well that this pine lacks the girth common among its centuries-old ancestors. Nishina, in his matter-of-fact tone common for this part of the prefecture, snaps back: “Oh no, that one dried out long ago.”

My excurison starts a few hours earlier on the JR Hanwa line bound for Wakayama Prefecture. I alight just one stop south of Izumisano station, within eye and earshot of Kansai airport. It is these foothills that the new arrivals glimpse as the plane makes its final approach to the island runway. The Kiku mountains, rising to just under 400 vertical metres, are hardly giants, but one should not judge a mountain by its height but more by what lies on its slopes.

And what wondrous slopes lay before me. The rural byway skirts past a light industrial area before meandering through newly-planted rice fields to reach the grounds of Ogami shrine, a small Shinto sanctuary built in the Kasuga style of the Muromachi period. Despite the favorable weekend weather, the buildings lay dormant, the locals too reluctant to venture out in the 30-degree heat. I push on, crossing under the Hanwa Expressway until reaching the shores of Shintakino Reservoir. The crystal blue waters entice me for a closer look, and the shaded benches overlooking the elongated fingers of the pond pull me in. Sweat pours from my head, swabbed not by the soft folds of a towel but with the bottle of frozen Aquarius sports drink I managed to grab at the station.

The rolling contours of the ridge flank the eastern sides of the pond, so I continue following the forest road until it turns to mountain track. The shaded trail initially follows a stream but soon breaks out of the foliage through a grassy meadow. I pause, my ears drawn to the distinctive drone of insects. There’s something oddly familiar, somehow friendly about their tones. Rather than the menacing helicopter buzz of the giant hornets, these are warmer, more subtle hues reminiscent of a Cluster & Eno tune. The source of the drone soon presents itself in the form of a very active honeybee farm, bees flying hither and tither but paying their sudden intruder no interest as they forage the surrounding fields for nectar.

Fern-blanketed swaths of cedar dominate the next section of track, but are soon replaced by a healthy forest of hardwoods and red pine as the incline steepens to the summit ridge. The heat and humidity have sent my pores into overdrive, dollops of sweat trickling down my forehead provide bait for the insects darting in for a sip of salty saline. Despite being so close to the airport, the only other visitors are the local residents suspended across the path, waiting to catch those six-legged helicopters that I have helped to stir up. My swift movement wreaks havoc on their intricate webs, sweat now mixed with sticky silt and perhaps a spider or two whose reaction time is a bit too slow to avoid my intrusion. My trekking poles double as a web swatter as I navigate the undulating slopes of the narrow ridge deeper into Kiku’s folds.

Long strands of clear string cling to trees on eastern edge of the path, cordoning off large sections of forest like the yellow tape of a crime scene. A crime indeed, if trespassers are caught making off with prized matsutake mushrooms, a local delicacy whose tasty morsels can fetch hundreds of dollars in local markets. Fortunately picking season isn’t until the autumn, so I have no worry of being mistaken for a poacher.

A pair of steep climbs lead to false summits, tricking me each time into thinking that I had arrived at the top. The crest of the third hill does reach the summit signpost and lone pine tree. Mr. Nishina sits on a bench, resting under the shade of a small oak tree. He has come to check on the status of the famed sasayuri flowers blanketing the summit slopes. “You’ve come at a good time”, he remarks, pointing to the bamboo lilies in full bloom. I ask about chrysanthemum, an obvious ode to the Mt. Kiku name, but Nishina corrects my suppositions by explaining the legend of princess Kiku and her magic mane.

Nishina wears a pair of binoculars in his left hand and curiosity once again gets the better of me. “Follow me”, orders my guide as he takes off through an opening in the dense undergrowth. The path is marked irregularly by bits of red tape affixed to the deciduous trees as we leave the summit plateau and head north of a narrow flank of ridge. After 10 minutes we reach a clearing overlooking a towering electricity pylon several stories high. “Here, have a look”, Nishina explains.

At the top of the tower sits a broad nest with a large raptor attending to two young chicks. “This is the Ōtaka”, explains Nishina, “an endangered bird in Osaka Prefecture”. Apparently numbers of this ‘big hawk’ have decreased drastically since Osaka was firebombed during the war. It is only in these undisturbed highlands of the Izumi range that these birds of prey still remain. Since it is my first Ōtaka sighting, I ask for a translation – “Umm, it’s a Japanese Osprey”, comes the reply, between fits of laughter between both of us, as we know the only osprey in Japan are the ones making crash landings in the waters off the coast of Okinawa.

It turns out this species of bird is the Northern goshawk, graceful in flight with a penchant for snagging whatever it can grasp in its sharp claws. After watching the raptor for nearly half an hour, we retreat back to the summit and hike down together. It turns out that Nishina is a caretaker of the mountain, sharing his duties with a dozen other local residents who take turns grooming the hiking paths and checking on the flora and fauna.

The mountain path merges onto a gravel forest road which leads to a network of ubiquitous paved roads sloping towards Osaka Bay. We walk together, talking of life in Sennan city, a place that seems to operate according to its own rules. One such place is the dwelling of Mr. Morita, a retired truck driver who has set up a makeshift abode of connected trailers surrounding an outdoor living/kitchen area. He offers me a cup of instant coffee and beckons me over to a row of sun-bleached sofas. “You can stay here tonight if you want”, offers my new host, pointing to a trailer in the rear that doubles as a guest bedroom. In back of the living space, an overgrown yard is home to a family of goats, who bloated bellies attest to no lack of nutrients on the fertile soil of these highlands. Morita spends the summers cruising Hokkaido in his camper van, while Nishina looks after his goats. You’ll find pockets of these alternative folk scattered throughout Japan, hiding out in plain sight while secretly giving a finger to the LDP and the bureaucratic types running the country into the ground. I’m just glad that I was given a glimpse into a side of Japan that most never have a chance to experience.

 

 

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Shaken up finale – The Walk

12:15pm

The asphalt sizzles slightly as I follow route 22 northeast past the campus and along the edge of a deserted suburban collection of overpriced dwellings. Rows of planted keyaki trees provide  protection from the blazing midday sun shimmering off the pavement. Cars whizz by, oblivious to the lonely foot soldier on his march to freedom.

12:45pm

I make good work on the elevated protection of the sidewalk, following along steadily through the rolling hills to a busy intersection flanked by chain restaurants and a sprawling Kuroneko distribution center. Here I head west onto National Highway 302, a busy thoroughfare cutting straight through the northern tip of the Ikoma mountain range. A narrow sidewalk offers safe passage briefly before giving way to a narrow shoulder barely the width of a sneaker. These roads were not designed for foot traffic.

1:00pm

Trucks whizz by just inches from my scrunched-up shoulders as I climb higher into the hills. On normal days, vehicles use this road to gain access to the expressway, but due to the quake the highways are all closed: the car navigation systems have somehow rerouted all of the transport trucks along this typically quiet section of Kyoto Prefecture. At the top of a crest I reach Kawachi-tōge, flanked on the east by the glistening chimney of a garbage incineration plant. Here I cross over into Osaka Prefecture and return to the comforts of a wide sidewalk.

1:05pm

After 50 meters I reach a fully stocked 7-11 and enter the air-conditioned space. First on my list is sunscreen, followed by a cold sports drink and a few snacks. The interior seems to have come through the quake with very little noticeable damage, though I suspect that the diligent staff had already finished cleaning up the mess before I arrive.

1:45pm

The route climbs gently before leveling off at the mountain ridge for a short while. Here I pass by two in suits walking in the opposite direction: they too have taken to foot due to the utter meltdown of the train system. Thick forests give way to broad rice fields and vistas across the Hirakata plain and directly towards the quake epicenter. I make note of the lack of smoke on the horizon, a reminder that things could have been a lot worse.

2:00pm

Route 302 ducks under the Dai-ni Keihan Expressway and back into familiar territory. After reaching the JR train tracks I turn south and follow quieter streets towards Tsuda station. I notice my first signs of damage: kawara roof tiles lay in shattered fragments among crumbly leaf litter and cigarette butts. Street smarts start to kick in, though it not muggers that I am afraid of encountering. Instead, I study my surroundings carefully, planning out a possible path of escape should a strong aftershock send the electrical lines directly overhead into a free fall.

2:20pm

I arrive at Tsuda station, only to find the entrance cordoned off. There will be no shortcuts back to my house by train – I am committed to my own foot power. I continue south until spotting a torii gate snapped in two. My curiosity gets the better of me and I enter the shrine grounds. Beyond the gate lay the toppled remains of a giant tōrō lantern, a seismic ode to Stonehenge if you will. I step around the obstacle and exit out the rear of the grounds through another off-balance torii gate teetering on collapse.

3:00pm 

Continuing south, I now enter the familiar grounds of the Jingūji vineyards. To my great surprise, an elderly woman sits patiently at her stall, peddling stacks of freshly harvested grapes. I stop in for a chat and end up buying a couple of kilograms of Delaware grapes to bring back to Kanako and to my neighbors. I know they have probably been through a rough day so it seems like the best remedy to calm frail nerves.

3:45pm 

I finally reach my neighborhood and navigate around fallen debris and into Kanako and Ibuki’s waiting arms. All of my neighbors are outside, conversing about the rough start to the work week. We all have our own stories, especially those stuck in Osaka city who, like me, had to improvise their way home. As we chat, with smiles of relief for everyone safely accounted for, the pavement beneath our feet rises up-and-down as if we are all standing on a trampoline. A magnitude 4 aftershock sends vertical seismic waves through our bodies. Little do we know that the coming weeks are about to become a whole lot shakier.

There’s not much to say about the August entry in the calendar – I’ll let the picture speak for itself.

The calendar image was captured on the lower slopes of Japan’s highest peak and it foreshadows the tragic events that were about to unfold on the upper reaches of the Eiger.

Michal, I’m sure you’re still out there somewhere – in another dimension – dreaming in those clouds that sparked the imagination and influenced countless mountaineers.

Although it has been 2 years since your passing, the framed photo I keep on the wall above my study serves as constant reminder that your legacy will never be forgotten.

When I need an extra dose of inspiration, I pore over your words like a faithful disciple and stream your video channel for glimpses of places I only dream to explore.

Many thanks to Michal’s family for providing the images that you see here.  

July’s Calendar Photo is from Shokanbetsu, so instead of the monthly ‘calendar footage’ post, I bring you this love-overdue report from the archives:

 

The sleepy coastal town of Mashike sits snugly against the towering peaks of the Shokanbetsu range, a magnet for frigid precipitation during the winter months, and heavy fog during the green season. Along the main street a row of buildings dating from the early Meiji era stand out among the newer, rust-stained concrete of the post-war structures. An old kimono shop sits idle, the old shell transformed into a local history museum. I wander through the empty rooms, admiring the striations in the glasswork of the windows. A few doors down, the volunteers at the local sake factory distribute free samples to a busload of tourists pausing briefly before heading to the flowery hills of Furano. Near the end of the street, just before the deserted train station and bus stop, an aging, weather-tained facade with arched windows and a recessed oak entrance serves as my accommodation for the evening. The proprietor, a young family of transplants from Osaka, take me in as one of their own, offering not only a warm meal and drinks, but practical hiking advice for my ascent of Shokanbetsu planned for the following morning.

“There are three routes up the mountain”, explain my guide, “none of which are particularly easy”. With rain spitting down outside, this is not the news I want to hear. Still, I bite my lip and absorb the knowledge, deciding in the end to go with the shortest route up to the summit: a backbreaking 10km one-way ticket to the summit of what the locals have penned ‘Mashike Fuji’.

Bright and early, Grace meets me outside of the single-roomed structure that doubles as train station and tourist information center. After exchanging pleasantries, we file up the paved switchbacks to the 500 vertical-meter Hashibetsu trailhead. Thick cloud hangs heavy in the air as we unload the gear. The foliage is still dripping wet from the late night squalls that pushed in from the sea. We have one very long, sticky and sloppy hike staring us right in the face, so procrastination would do no good. Better to dive into it and get on with it.

The path is well trodden and easy to follow, but getting lost is the least of our worries. The humidity forces the sweat from our pores, which attracts the mosquitos and horseflies. Swatting is an exercise in futility, and the only way to avoid the persistent buggers is to keep moving. The trail is framed on both sides by head-tall bamboo grass, concealing the forest floor and the creatures that lie in the murk. After several minutes of tramping, we come across our first bear prints that couldn’t have been more than several hours old. Unfortunately it appears that we are tramping along an ursine highway, and Grace’s bear spray does little to calm the nerves. If we are lucky we can catch up with the creature and surprise it from behind, but there would be nowhere to go if we met the mighty brown bear head on.

The mountain, like most other volcanoes in this land, is neatly divided into 10 stagepoints which does little to brighten our spirits. In anticipation of the long approach and summer humidity, I had brought along 4 liters of water, but the clouds cool things off enough to have me rethinking my decision. At stage point number 3 (san go-me), I stow away the extra two liters behind the signpost, and notice a much softer prance in my footfalls. My frowns from the previous hours fade away as I sink into a gradual rhythm and enter my tozan zone. The first 4 kilometers of the hike are almost completely flat, and it isn’t until the 5th stage point that we start to rise out of the flatlands along a deep gully eroded away by the torrential rains that frequent this dormant volcanic massif.

Grace and I break into conversation now and again as she updates me on her hiking schedule. You see, she is embarking on a rather unprecedented mission to knock off every single one of the 200 and 300 famous mountains left in Hokkaido, a hectic schedule that consists of nearly twenty peaks dominated by long, exposed climbs. Her mountain adventures have earned her the moniker The Yamaholic, a fitting name for the forty something dekasegi who grinds out a living in a factory in rural Toyama Prefecture. If her dream becomes realized, she will be the first foreigner to complete the entire Sanbyakumeizan, so getting these remaining peaks checked off the northern island will go a long way towards meeting her goal. I really admire that kind of spirit and determination, as I had abandoned my own quest long ago when the first stages of asthma set in. Still, I do have an intention of knocking off several of the peaks from that list of mighty 300. From the pictures in my guidebook, I’ve always had a longing to climb Shokanbetsu, and being able to do it in the company of the Yamaholic is an added bonus.

After another hour of ascending, we finally rise above the thousand meter mark and towards the edge of the tree line. The clouds are playing a game of hide and seek with the surrounding peaks, but in those brief intervals we can just make out the edge of the wetlands of Uryu to the south. Uryu marsh is one of Hokkaido’s hidden spots of ethereal beauty. In fact, a lot of visitors actually prefer climbing Shokanbetsu from this southernly approach, as the marshlands teem with wildflowers from June to October. There’s only one problem with the Uryu route: it is 23km round-trip to the summit and back, something that even us seasoned veterans can not muster up the stamina for.

At the 7th stage point (nana go-me), the bamboo grass yields to vast gardens of wildflowers of every imaginable shape, color, and size. The Yamaholic breaks into a huge grin, the first of the day after setting out earlier that muggy morning. The terrain morphs to alpine tundra as the views to the south open up. Clouds are moving in swiftly from the sea to the north, however, so our vistas are soon erased by the mist.

10 minutes past the garden we stumble across fresh scat the size of a rugby ball. Luckily the cloud hides the bear from our sights but if there’s one good sign to seeing gargantuan bear excrement it’s that the creature is very well-fed, meaning it is less likely to seek us out for lunch.

Soon we hit a junction where the two routes from the southern approach turn into one for the final push to the high point. The Shokan route is also a popular route and follows a parallel ridge up the spine to the summit plateau. The weather had kept the other hikers at bay though, and shortly after noon the Yamaholic and I stand next to the small shrine and summit marker affixed to the top. We give each other a high five and dig into our rice balls while waiting for the clouds to clear. Dreadfully, the mist refuses to budge, so we stare at the photos in our guidebook and use our imagination to trace the outline of the sea directly below. Drops of rain begin to fall just as we finish repacking the gear, and soon we find ourselves in the midst of one of those notorious Hokkaido squalls that put your rain gear to the test. We fly out of there like mice fleeing a cat kennel and drop back down into the sheltered coves of the treeline just as the rain peters out.

I pick up the two-liter I had stashed earlier that morning and we continue the descent through a fresh layer of ankle-deep mud. Once back in the flatlands the sun makes a late yet welcomed appearance as we brace ourselves for another blood feast. The mosquitos go to town but the spirits remain high after knocking off one of Hokkaido’s toughest day hikes.

The Yamaholic drops me off in Asahikawa as she continues her journey to the next mountain. I, on the other hand, take a well-deserved weekend off by crashing at a friend’s place while preparing for the ferry back to Honshu.

 

Shaken up – part 3

8:08am

After the tears dry I pull myself together and look through class materials, knowing that I will have no need for these today but convincing myself that taking my mind of the unfolding catastrophe will somehow help.

8:30am

The first administrative staff arrive at school but are unable to give an answer to our inquiries regarding class cancellations. The waiting game begins.

8:35am

The first aftershock rumbles through the building sending our rattled nerves closer to the edge.

8:45am

Still no official word from the administration, but I know that classes will eventually be cancelled. It’s just a matter of whether it will be announced before first period commences at 9am

8:55am

Not a peep from the higher-ups, so I head to my classroom to find 10 brave students sitting still in class. They were the lucky ones, having either walked from their nearby dwellings or having made an earlier train before the rumbling begins. One student confesses that he was sitting in the classroom having breakfast when the quake hit.

9:00am

As class ‘officially begins’, I plug in the laptop and stream NHK on the flat screen TV. I offer the following instructions:

1) There will be no class today. Please work on tasks from other courses or contact your friends and family on Line.

2) If a strong aftershock occurs, duck under your desk and move away from the windows.

9:10am

An announcement over the loudspeaker confirms that morning classes have been cancelled. Morning classes only. I leave everything in my classroom and head back to the teachers lounge to await further instruction. All train lines have been indefinitely suspended.

10:45am

I am informed that all classes have been cancelled. With no trains in operation, I head to the cafeteria for an early lunch and to weigh the options.

11:30am

Still no movement on the trains, so I do a bit of navigating on Google Maps and make a breakthrough discovery. My house is directly over the mountain behind the school. There is no trail to speak of, but a network of paved roads will lead me through the greenery home. Old man Google says it’s a 15km walk. So the journey begins.

(To be continued)

Shaken up – part 2

8:00am

As my heart rate returns to an under-par golf score I take a few unsteady steps to the convenience store and step inside. Merchandise is strewn about the floors, punctured cans of toppled coffee forming a small lake in the far aisle in which a few pre-packaged loaves of bread stay afloat. I step over the mess, grab a 2-liter bottle of water, and head to the register. A shell-shocked employee rings me up, her upper lip quivering as an unsteady voice announces my total. I hand over the coins and step aside, sheepishly slipping away instead of offering to assist in the cleanup.

8:05am

I arrive at school and immediately plug in the laptop to get a read of the situation. National broadcaster NHK has set up a live stream on their site, so I clicke the feed to find the epicenter relatively close to my current position – hence the violent jolt and disheveled state of things. I abandon my fruitless pursuit to ring my wife and opt for a text message, which seems to go through. A prompt reply ensures that everything is fine on her end. A few other teachers have somehow made it to school as we ponder about class cancellations. The office won’t open for another half an hour, so there is nothing to do but watch the news and wait. The first reports of fatalities come in as helicopters send down images of damage and destruction. A busted water mane in Tatatsuki city sends up a geyser of water 10 meters in height. Rescuers frantically try to lift a concrete block wall that has crushed a 9-year-old girl on her way to school. Reminders that any one of us could go at any time without warning.

(To be continued)

 

 

Is there a more scenic ridge in the Minami Alps than the sandy granite boulders of the Hō-ō mountains? Some may favor the loftier heights of the Akaishi mountains and their distinctive deposits of red chert and green limestone, but what Hō-ō lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in scenery.

The mountains sit snugly against the Kofu basin, soaking up the fine rays of sunshine which often grace the Yamanashi prefectural capital. After a period of rainy weather, it is indeed the Hō-ō mountains that make the earliest return to fair weather skies. It’s not too common for it to be sunny here while the rest of the Minami Alps lie caked in cloud and mist.

The mountain is most often referred to at the Hō-ō Sanzan, or the Three Peaks of the Phoenix. Named after the trio of Buddhist deities of healing (Yakushi), compassion (Kannon), and hell (Jizō), a full traverse of all three mountains in as a day-trip may very well conjure up the feelings of all three deities. Regardless, you will find a few trail runners in recent years who opt for the 27km return route from Yashajin-tōge. Those with a enlightened sense of sanity will want to break up the arduous journey by overnighting at either Minami-Omuro or Yakushidake mountain huts.

Most Hyakumeizan baggers opt for an ascent of Mt. Kannon, the highest mountain in the range, while adventure seekers prefer the vertical climb to the top of the obelisk, Hō-ō’s unofficial symbol and a rock outcrop that make it clearly identifiable from the summits of Yamanashi’s surrounding peaks.

The photo used on the calendar was supplied by Naresh Deora, an Indian hiker who splits time between Tokyo and Kofu. He is currently attempting to climb the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan, a collection of 100 peaks located within the prefectural borders. If successful, he will be the second foreigner (behind Julian and his amazing border terrier Hana) to complete the mountains. At the time of writing Naresh has currently finished 73 of the 100.

Trekkers typically start at Yashijin-tōge on the long gentle slog to Yakushi, Kannon and Jizo, where several option await. Most turn right and head down to one of the hot springs flanking the eastern foothills. Others continue along the ridge over to Kai-koma, a tough ridge of undulating track that will take a full day to navigate. This the route I chose back in 2005 during my first visit to the mountain range. Last year, I made a return visit to assess trail conditions for a forthcoming guidebook that I am co-authoring. The publisher needed clear-weather photos and the weather fairies delivered, possibly bringing me the best weather I have ever had in the Minami Alps.

On that traverse over to Kai-koma, the first major peak along the ridge is none other than Takamine, a peak just one meter lower than Mt. Yakushi but just as impressive. Amazingly, this mountain was not included in the Hō-ō triumvirate, perhaps because Japan likes to group things together by threes and not fours. Thus, a deity was not enshrined here and the rather mundane name of ‘tall peak’ put in its place. If given the chance, I would suggest offering the mountain to Dainichi, the Buddha representing emptiness.

 

 

 

 

Shaken up – part 1

7:56am

I push the button next to the door of the Kizu-bound JR train – those self-service buttons on rural trains that only allow those in the know to exit the train. The doors open and I glide onto the platform, swimming through throngs of high school students funneling through the ticket gates. My ticket is swallowed by the wicket machinery, and allows passage via a narrow flight of stairs to the north-south corridor of route 22. Descending down to street level, I turn left along the narrow shoulder to my usual stance at the broad intersection. From here I can hop through the pedestrian crossing and directly into the convenience store, avoiding the rush of students following pursuit. It’s a perfect plan, and part of my usual Monday morning routine to kick off yet another busy week.

7:58am

I stand at the front of the pack, like a marathon runner taking position at the starting gates. Suddenly, I am pushed from behind and instinctively lurch forward into the middle of the road. The asphalt thrusts upward, throwing me off my stance. I scurry over across the street, against the light, along with around 50 other students who are escaping from the terrifying sound of screeching metal and the unmistakable ping of electric wires. Screams of panic fill the air – I turn around and glance up at the pedestrian overpass swaying with panic-striken kids holding onto the railing for dear life. Directly behind me, the wall of students patiently waiting for the red light is replaced by an undulating wall of scaffolding, teetering on the edge of collapse. Is this what pushed me from behind?

7:59am

Hands on my knees, I pant for air and wait for my redlining heart beat to subside. I watch as the power lines continue to sway, always among the last things to stop moving during a seismic event. Reality starts to set in – this was a quake, and quite a strong one at that.

(To be continued)

The Togakushi highlands are an oft-overlooked section of northern Nagano prefecture offering a unique mix of nature and culture. The Togakushi range is dominated by the pyramidal peak of Takazuma, one of the Hyakumeizan, while the lower jagged ridge of Mt. Togakushi is relegated to 200meizan status.

The cliffs of Togakushi make for a stunning backdrop against the green pastures of the farmlands sitting snugly at the foot of the range. Troupes of wild monkeys can sometimes be seen foraging through the long grass in search of sustenance.

Rough igneous rock soars skyward as a reminder to Togakushi’s tumultuous past. Fossilized sea shells scattered along the summit plateau suggest subaqueous origins, a massive underwater volcano violently thrusting itself up to a height of nearly 2000 metres.

The climbing routes starts from the upper precincts of Togakushi Shrine, itself reached via a 2km corridor flanked by towering cryptomeria trees that make for a picturesque backdrop if you can manage to find a brief break in the large crowds that march like a holy procession.

From the the shrine a narrow path rises through native beech forests to the base of the cliff face. Fixed chains lead climbers through a maze of crumbly rock to an exposed knife edge ridge, which for once actually lives up to its name.

After this gravity-defying walkway the route opens up to the summit plateau, where it’s an easy stroll along the ridge over the summit and down to a saddle marking the entrance to Mt. Takazuma. Hyakumeizan hunters can typically be found resting in front of a bomb shelter of an emergency hut perched directly on top of this junction. Crowds often grow here, with peakbaggers giving Togakushi a miss in favor of Takazuma’s impressive pyramidal tower, a castle keep of sorts.

Unobstructed vistas all the way down to Mt. Fuji can be found on rare days of fair weather and good visibility. Most visitors are cursed with that all-too-familiar blanket of fog.

It’s easy to become enamored with the sheer beauty of the place, well deserving as its spot on the May page of the wall calendar. Observant folks will also recognize the cover shot of the calendar as no other than Togakushi’s kagami-ike (lit: mirror lake). From this angle Togakushi looks split in two, with jagged peaks rising both to the left and right of the lake shores. The left peak is Nishidake, whose rocky spire actually rises higher than the summit of Mt. Togakushi itself. Perhaps it is time to pay this ‘Western Peak’ a visit.

 

Mt. Arafune is a mountain that I have had my eye on for a while. In addition to being included on the list of 200 Famous Mountains, the massive rock formation flanking the summit plateau resembles the hull of a giant battleship for which the mountain receives its name.

Alastair and I depart from Suwa station on a bright and sunny morning at the start of the Golden Week holiday. We head east into neighboring Gunma Prefecture and reach the trailhead after a couple of hours of easy driving. It is my first hike with the fair-skinned Englishman, a self-determined mountaineer that can be found on neighboring alpine summits in the Kita, Chuo, and Minami Alps most weekends. Mt. Arafune dominates the skyline for miles around and can even be viewed from most of the Kita Alps if you know where to look.

A rope is draped across the trail, indicating some kind of closure. Having faced such obstacles before, I know that if the trail were really in such poor condition that they would built an impenetrable barrier. Alastair and I slip under the rope and along a very well-used path that hugs a narrow ridge. After a few modest rises and drops in altitude, we reach a saddle just before the final climb to the summit plateau. We soon arrive on top of Tomo rock and gaze out at Mt. Asama sitting snugly across a steep valley directly in front of us. We could almost reach out and touch it if not for the 200-meter high vertical cliff dropping just below our feet.

Speaking of cliffs, in 2009 this very cliff claimed the life of Kureyon Shinchan creator Yoshito Usui, whose death occurred under suspicious circumstances. Since there were no witnesses, there is debate as to whether the manga author ventured too close to the edge and lost his footing or whether it was a conscious decision to intentionally jump off and end it all. The drop causes severe vertigo problems for Alastair, but I crawl over on my belly to look down upon what would certainly be a rather nasty way to end your life.

As we admire the views, a trail runner jogs up and nonchalantly stands on the edge of the cliff peering over. The gusts of wind come strongly and irregularly and we both close our eyes before our fearless friend steps back from the void. He introduces himself as Mt. Haga and quickly blurts out a half-dozen peaks in the area that he recommends checking out. We pore over the maps and locate a few for future reference.

The true summit of Arafune is on the other side of this vast plateau lined with native hardwoods and a gentle mountain stream. It takes nearly an hour to cross over and reach the top, which affords views to our south of the Yatsugatake range. We retrace our steps all the way back to the car and head over to Uchiyama campground.

We check in and enjoy a late lunch of Genghis Khan lamb and ice cream before parking the car at the campsite. The winds are absolutely howling, so we put off erecting the tent and instead explore the mountains surrounding the plateau. Halfway along our traverse of a trio of forgettable peaks, we come across a well-fed rotund creature wobbling across a meadow. I take a quick picture before the mysterious animal scuttles for cover in the thick underbrush. It is no other than a anaguma or Japanese badger, my very first sighting of the elusive mammal.

The setting sun gives way to a brilliant display of stars. We somehow get the tent to stay upright while I give up on erecting my lightweight tarp. After our campfire is reduced to glowing coals, we retreat to bed. I settle in for a noisy night inside the tent while Alastair enjoys the warmth and serenity of the car.

The following morning dawns clear but the yellow haze pushing in from the Gobi Desert has reduced visibility to mum. We halfway consider climbing up a peak or two before throwing in the towel and taking an excursion to Shirakaba at the base of Mt. Tateshina for a pleasant lakeside stroll.

Mt. Arafune is well worth a visit, but the remote location really warrants having your own set of wheels. There is irregular bus/train service from Shimonita in the east but it involves a very long approach along a seldom-used trail. The vistas of Mt. Myogi more than make up for the ease of access though.